Are You Self-Soothing or Self-Numbing? By Lois Barth


When it comes to stress, change, and challenging times, for the most part, as humans, we tend to fall into two categories – the self-soothing type – or the self-numbing type. For years, I was in the self-numbing club. I learned it at an early age. I remember my first trip to the beauty parlor….

The grainy black and white home movie of my first trip at 2 years old to get my bangs sawed-off tells it all. My mother is holding me like a Raggedy Anne doll with stuffing coming out of its sides. With every motion of the scissor coming at me, I let out a scream that sounds like a cross between Orca the Whale and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Mom sticks a dark-colored lollipop into my mouth. I take it out and scream again. I crave the tenderness of a hug of reassurance, a gentle rocking motion sending a message of calmness to my spirit. But instead, I get another shove of the lollipop into my mouth, this time a tad harder. I cry, rant, protest, and scream. Kids are brilliant truth machines. They simply can’t not express their truth; especially about how they’re feeling. Most parents and caregivers, unfortunately, are less skilled at providing a space for them to do that and the ability to soothe them in a healthy and healing way.

My Mom, visibly stressed out, even in her camera-ready sweater girl outfit, complete with updo and stiletto heels, sticks the lollipop back into my mouth. We go back and forth about four times. Can’t say I’m not tenacious! But tenacity quickly gets traded in for resignation when nothing changes, my screams are silenced with a blob of sugar at the end of a stick. I stop looking for what I will never get. I shut my yapper, surrender and get that horrible 1-inch bang across the forehead look. That enough should account for 5 years of therapy!

I do not fault my Mom one bit; having to raise three kids while her albeit adoring and dedicated husband traveled fifty percent of the time and worked nights the remainder of the time, along with her having an emotionally abusive mother, left Mom with a nervous system that was rattled to the core. To say she gave better than she got, is a profound understatement.

While my siblings laugh about all the forced merriment of their early birthday parties, that is also part of our home movie as well, I sit, silent, having a front-row seat witnessing how early my self-numbing behavior began.

Food was and may always be my numbing drug of choice; even after having addressed my eating disorder that took me from 120 lbs to 98 lbs to 180 lbs in less than two years. Even after maintaining a 35 lb. weight loss for several decades, I still used food to fortress myself from any and all feelings and circumstances that I deemed too scary to feel or act upon. While it had been decades since I’ve been a member of the boxes and bags club, meaning outright binging, I still used food to take the “edge off,” when “it” all seemed too much to deal with.

Food, however, is not my only self-numbing Distraction DeJour; the list includes chronic worry, perseverating, mindless TV, internet, focusing on what others are doing versus what I should be doing, chronic busyness, confusion, procrastination, coming up with new ideas, without following through with previous projects, overthinking, undersleeping, focusing on helping others while not taking care of myself…the list is endless.

I use the word distraction very intentionally because while at the moment I hope to get a pass from what I have to feel or deal with, in truth, I am simply distracting myself from it. Whatever I’m hoping to avoid, It will inevitably show up after the brain fog of distraction is gone. The problem is I’ve unwittingly abandoned the very part of me that needs my attention, compassion, and support. All I’ve done is shove a metaphorical lollipop down its throat, and in doing so, the very part that of me that is hungering to be heard, withers, and chokes.

I would love to tell you how this lightning bolt realization caused me to never self-numb again, and that I still don’t take part in a little recreational eating now and then, or other Distraction DeJours, but that would be hiding behind a crumbling façade with no solid foundation to keep it standing.

What I will tell you, is that my daily commitment and imperfect practice to switch from self-numbing to self-soothing behavior is one of the most compassionate and profound acts of re-parenting I can do for myself.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all laundry list of how to self-soothe, my approach is two fold. When I feel overwhelmed or scared or filled with lots of complicated/conflicting feelings, not all of which are “negative ones,” I do my best to stop, to breathe, to really listen and honor how I’m feeling, actually naming my feelings out loud is very helpful, and take an action that brings me closer to my heart, my truth, and my body. That is my self-soothing act. It looks different each time.

Since I am an exquisitely/excruciatingly (depends upon the day or moment) sensitive yet very thick-skinned being, and as my friend calls it, an Emotional Ferrari (going from 0-120 mph in a New York minute) I must stop, so I can self-regulate in order to regain my perspective, reboot my system and move forward in my life.

These activities include but not limited to journaling, creative writing, working out at the gym, (when the gyms were open), a much needed nap, hot shower or long bath, dance class, crying, decluttering, long walks in nature, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, heartfelt talks with my friends where I just share where I’m at, affectionately call “Goddess Vents,” watching movies or reading articles that are catalysts for the feelings to bubble up inside me and come out. The list goes on.

I find that when I do have the willingness to tune in and then take one of those actions, my innate sense of resourcefulness and optimism return. I begin to trust myself more and more. When I defer to self-numbing behaviors, I leave the most creative, aware and often sacred parts of myself at the door.

Yesterday, I watched the you tube video of the police in Fayettesville, NC kneeling in solidarity to the protestors, and how that simple act of extraordinary courage and generosity, evoked so much healing for both parties. I teared up as I’m tearing up right now, just writing it. I was reminded that even in the midst of world strife, a single act of kindness, of truth, of vulnerability, can open up minds and hearts, even those who are in tremendous pain. Watching that, crying, and sharing it with others was by far my most important self-soothing activity I did for the day.

What are the ways you soothe your soul, and gets you back in your own skin, when you’re in pain or feeling scared or overwhelmed or despair?

It’s not always easy to opt for self-soothing when the feelings of anxiety seduce me to believe in a false urgency that in most cases, doesn’t really exist. It can feel like taking a cross-country trip blind-folded, with no map, or itinerary; while the instant gratification of self-numbing beckons me to sit on its warm fuzzy lap, right next door.

Fast forward to the pandemic. Given the challenges most people are going through between health scares, uncertainty, financial challenges, isolation, more responsibilities, and overall unrest in the world, the ability to self-soothe can feel even more difficult.

You may be in that category and fighting with me in your head. “I’m desperately trying not to lose my home and to feed my kids, and you’re talking about self-soothing being on the top of my list. Yeah right.”

I get it. I have tremendous empathy for what people are going through, and tremendous gratitude for what I have, I would, however, adamantly beg to differ. It is when our resources are feeling so depleted is when we need to actively seek self-soothing more than ever.

There are several days, where I have my own versions of the scissors coming at me, and wanting to go for the lollipop instead of doing the heavy lifting of feeling uncomfortable and scary feelings. And when I opt for “smart feet” which is about taking actions that are aligned with my priorities and goals, along with committing to a practice of self-soothing, I actually have more energy and feel greater optimism in my life.  The muscle of resiliency starts to increase and the desire to self-numb decrease.

So in Month #3 of the New Abnormal COVID-19 Life, I beg of you to opt for self-soothing versus self-numbing practices. Start small, but start. Celebrate each time you do, and just be compassionate (beating yourself up is the worst form of self-numbing) with yourself when you don’t.

Life is so short, so fleeting and so precious. And the one-of-a-kind gem that you already are, and always have been, is right there for you! Everytime you choosing self-soothing over self-numbing, you get to know that magnificient part of you that much more!

I’ve created a video on The 5C’s on Creating Resiliency During Really Challenging Times.

Hope you find it helpful!

If you know of others in your life, who can really use this message right now, PLEASE forward it to them.

If you’re looking for more ways to soothe yourself versus numb out, and to be supported in reaching your goals, (yes even in the time of COVID-19) feel free to shoot me an email at